Sorn Shashi Prabhavati Devi in the hill station of Nahan, to Maharaj Ranzor Singh of Sirmur, my grandmother was in many ways the matriarch of my family. She belonged to another era, another time. Ten months older to my grandfather (they were both born in 1918), she always wanted a husband who was good to look at. When my grandfather arrived from Rajasthan to marry her, there were crowds gathered outside Ranzor Palace to marvel at his
movie-star looks. Or at least that’s what we’ve been told. Growing up, I was lucky to gather tales of my grandparents, from my father, aunts, cousins and other relatives. My dad made it a point to have his parents stay with us for six months of the year, and it was during these trips that I got to know my grandmother.
A gentle lady, she was already 67 when I was born. She wore simple chiffon sarees around the house and stuck a red bindi on her forehead. She dyed her hair black and wore a pair of diamond and emerald earrings that were once worn by my grandfather… when it was OK for Rajput Princes to wear earrings. Short in stature, she had a strong-willed personality, one that was respected by everyone. Her word was final. As the years passed, I learned of my grandmother’s life. How she was born into a blue-blooded family in Himachal, how she lived under strict purdah till she was married, their cars had blinds that were put up when the ladies travelled, and how she was tutored by a professor who had to sit behind a screen.
When my grandmother came to Dundlod, my family’s thikana in Shekhawati, she came with her retinue of servants. It was the late 1930s and the peak of the British Raj. My grandfather was the eldest son, and thus her position as the new bahu, must’ve been a prestigious one. After a brief stint with the Jaipur Lancers, then part of the British Indian army, my granddad returned home, with a King George medal that now sits inside my desk. He was a Rajput Prince and bred like a show-pony accustomed to a life of luxury and decadence. The family lived well with a giant fort in Dundlod and a palatial home built on a large estate in the middle of Jaipur. A career in the army was acceptable, but anything else was not kosher. And so my granddad took on the role of a gentleman of leisure.
This was all fine when the going was good. India’s independence stripped families like mine of a lot of their land and possessions. They lost all their income and had to surrender much of their assets. Amidst all this, making ends meet soon became difficult. Rich in property, the Rajputs soon became cash poor. Many families sold their land, then went the cars, slowly family heirlooms, etc. It was during this time that my grandmother decided to work for Maharani Gayatri Devi, the third wife of Maharaja Sawai Man Singh of Jaipur. Both, my grandmother and Gayatri Devi were from different parts, so their alien-status in Rajasthan formed a commonality that eventually became a bond. My grandmother handled the Maharani’s formal affairs and administration.
Stories of how she travelled with Gayatri Devi on a ship to London to attend Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 were my favourite. They stopped in Paris, where not knowing French, my grandmother had a tough time even ordering a glass of water. She was known for her self-deprecating humour, a trait that came out strongly when she had a few drinks. The parties that the Jaipur Royal family threw were legendary. Attended by British Lords and Ladies, visiting dignitaries and other Rajput royals… these soirées oozed elegance and refinement but were fun nonetheless. They’d have fancy-dress nights and grand stately balls. On one such occasion, my grandmother refused to dance with General Thimayya, when asked why she replied to Gayatri Devi that he wasn’t handsome enough!
When The Maharani decided to stand for elections, my grandmother went along for all her campaign rallies. After a landslide win, she accompanied the Maharani back to the Jaipur Palace, where the Maharaja awaited from a high balcony, throwing gold coins in the air at the crowds below to celebrate his wife’s staggering win. There were garden parties, festivals, tennis matches and drinking sessions that were unbelievable. Known for her hospitality, Gayatri Devi served only the best. My grandmother remembered one such party where Queen Elizabeth danced with HH Man Singh and the Duke of Edinburgh danced with Maharani Gayatri Devi. On another occasion, Jacqueline Kennedy visited the Palace, and on another, it was Brezhnev.
Thakurani Prabhavati Devi and Thakur Ratan Singh
When Indira Gandhi jailed the Maharani during the emergency, my grandmother was broken. She had seen the government raid Moti Dungri, a fort owned by the Jaipur royals, where untold riches amassed by their dynasty for millennia had been stored. Gandhi charged Gayatri Devi with evasion of taxes and put her in a cell shared by a common prostitute in Tihar Jail. After decades of having worked for the Maharani, my grandmother chose to retire. She never told me why. An introduction to Anandamayi Ma had made her particularly spiritual, and my grandmother had given up all meat and liquor. She became very religious, too around this time.
In the early 90s, we lost my uncle to cerebral malaria in Tanzania. Gayatri Devi brought along her son Prince Jagat Singh to Dundlod House, where the two consoled my crying grandmother. The death of her eldest son had shocked her and triggered the onset of Alzheimer’s and dementia. She suddenly stopped talking altogether. A docile, childlike person now replaced the powerful lady we had known her to be. My grandfather, whom she had taken care of all their lives, now found himself in the nouvelle position of having to return the favour.
The Maharani and my grandmother didn’t meet for several years until 1999 when Gayatri Devi came for tea to our home in Kolkata. I watched as my parents and my grandfather spoke at length to Her Highness, while my grandmother stayed silent and stared into nothingness, with an innocent, infantile smile on her lips. Frustrated at her perpetual silence, Gayatri Devi tried her best to make her say a few words. “Prabha mein kaun hoon? Mein kaun hoon?” My grandmother didn’t say a word. After the Maharani had left, the maid handed a piece of paper and a pen to my granny. In bold, Hindi script, she wrote RAJMATA GAYATRI DEVI.
This would be the last time the two would meet. Prabhavati Devi passed away in 2000, as did the Rajmata Gayatri Devi in 2009, taking away with them a lifetime of stories and tales. - By Vishwaveer Singh